Field of Science


Oil and Water (a quiz)

Friday is quiz day! Right? In elementary school, quizzes came on Fridays. Math quizzes: to be taken only in pencil. Spanish quizzes: filled out while kneeling on the floor and using our plastic chairs as desks. (Wait, what? Come to think of it, I guess they couldn't afford desks for all the rooms.) Spelling quizzes: at least one of my teachers had me sit in the back of the room and grade everyone else's spelling tests. That's a good way not to make friends, let me tell you.

Spelling quizzes, at least, must be out of fashion these days, judging by the letter I just read from a 12-year-old who spelled "door" D-O-R-R.

Anyway, in honor of Friday, and since the latest effort to slow down that oil gushing into the ocean might have worked (!), I wrote you a quiz.

1. Which of the following does NOT describe an attempted method of oil-spill control?
a. Setting the oil on fire
b. Underwater robots
c. 100-ton steel dome
d. "Top Hat"
e. "Junk Shot"
f. "Last Shot"
g. "Top Kill"

2. What is the best way to clean an oily seabird?
a. Scrubbing Bubbles
b. Dawn
c. Pledge
d. OxiClean

3. Of the five sea turtle species that live in the Gulf of Mexico, how many are endangered?
a. None, thank goodness
b. 2
c. 3
d. 5

4. Which of the following has NASA, watching from above, NOT used to describe the changing shape of the oil slick?
a. The letter "J"
b. The letter "U"
c. A tilde
d. A swan

5. BP (BP_America) has 7,800 followers on Twitter. A fake BP account called BPGlobalPR (most recent tweet: "What a gorgeous day! The ocean is filled with the most beautiful rainbows!" #yourewelcome #bpcares) has almost:
a. The same number of followers
b. Twice as many followers
c. Five times as many followers
d. Ten times as many followers

Answers are in the comments. (Photo credit: NASA/Goddard/MODIS Rapid Response Team)

Synthetic Life and Headline-itis

People keep sending me links to stories about Craig Venter's new "synthetic cell." So let's talk about it.

(By the way, I do like it when people alert me to interesting science stories, and I often put them in the magazine. If my coworker hadn't alerted me to it, I never would have known about the recent wedding in Japan that was officiated by a robot. But if the headline is "Major Breakthrough Announced in Science Magazine and Every Other News Outlet!" then I've probably seen it already.)

This particular story definitely has a case of the inflamed headlines. To be fair, Craig Venter started it--probably around the time when he called his creation "the first self-replicating species we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer."

OK, so what is it really?

Venter's team, to start with, created the longest-ever chunk of synthesized DNA: over 1 million base pairs. They did it by ordering a bunch of smaller DNA pieces, each 1000 base pairs long, from a company that custom-synthesizes it. (There's a catalog that must be dull to shop in: "I'll take the AAAAGTCCCTTCCCGCCC in 'colorless.'") Venter's team painstakingly stitched together these pieces in stages until they had the entire million-base-pair genome they wanted.

Incidentally, the way you cut and paste genes is not with, like, extremely small tweezers, or fancy machines. You need enzymes (which aren't manmade) to do the cutting, and other microorganisms, such as yeast and E. coli, to do the gluing back together. So the resulting genome might be synthetic, but the tools aren't.

The final genome was not written from scratch. It was the genome of a bacterium called Mycoplasma mycoides. The scientists did make a few edits. They deleted a handful of genes and added some non-functional "watermarks" in code, including a James Joyce quote: "To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life." (Oooh.)

Finally, they inserted this modified genome into an emptied-out cell from another, similar bacterium (Mycoplasma capricolum). They found that the new bacterium, which has the cute nickname "Synthia," successfully lived and replicated itself.

This is a cool project, and demonstrates that you can create synthetic genomes and boot them up. But it's not exactly life from scratch: the cell itself, and the text of the genome, belonged to pre-existing species.

One more note about those "watermarks." They're handy in that they allow you to prove that the bacterium you're looking at is the one you manufactured, and not a naturally occurring one. They also make it easier to claim a genome as your own intellectual property. Craig Venter is interested in patenting DNA sequences, and he's not the only one. That's right: genes that you currently have in your body might be someone else's intellectual property. Not to mention genes that more than one lab might want to study so they can, you know, cure diseases.

Just this March, a U.S. District Court overturned patents held by a company called Myriad on BRCA1 and BRCA2, genes that can predispose women to breast or ovarian cancer. The patents, which the company actively enforced, meant that only Myriad could perform a diagnostic test to tell a woman her likelihood of those cancers. They charge more than $3,000 to do so. Maybe you've seen their ads on TV: "BRAC Analysis: Be Ready Against Cancer!"

No, I didn't make a typo. Yes, they changed the name of the gene so it made a kicky acronym. Thank goodness we're custom-making bacteria now. Soon they can have their own cute, easily marketable names!

P.S. Here are a bunch of actual scientists talking about Craig Venter's synthetic cell.

Why Do Kids Hate Polar Bears?

I have an email folder labeled "Angry Mail." It's not exactly bursting at its digital seams, but every once in a while I have to answer a letter from a reader who's upset about something. (Someone else answers all the friendly mail; I only get the nasty stuff.) So yesterday I finally dealt with one that had been sitting there for a few weeks. Its subject line was: Geoengineering and "Global Warming."

You can probably guess from the scare quotes that this reader, a girl of unspecified teen age, doesn't believe in climate change. We ran a cover story about geoengineers, scientists who are proposing drastic physical measures (cloud seeding; giant space umbrellas) to counteract global warming. Anonymous Reader disagrees with our premise: "I really think the geoengineering article in the April issue was totally one-sided. It didn't acknowledge that some of the things the author presented as scientific fact are either controversial or DISPROVEN!"

Teens love exclamation points and caps-lock, by the way. They also love putting little stage directions in asterisks, like this: *goes off on tangent*

This girl included links in her email to pages at both the London Times (saying it "disproved" glaciers shrinking in the Himalayas) and NASA ("global warming DID NOT cause ice to melt in the Arctic!"). Concerned, I followed both links. The Times story was about an infamous gaffe in which some scientist guessed, without having supporting data, that the Himalayan glaciers would all be melted by 2035, and a bunch of important people quoted him before someone realized the number was totally made up and also impossible. The glaciers will take a long time, maybe hundreds of years, to totally melt. But the article also makes clear that the glaciers are, in fact, melting.

The second link was to an article about weird winds that are contributing to melting Arctic sea ice. The article doesn't say anything explicit about climate change, probably because NASA assumes it is blindingly obvious that global warming is the major contributor to the ice melting. Once sea ice is thinned and broken up, wind that blows ice floes south will make them melt even faster. If this girl were looking for NASA's data on global warming and polar ice caps, she could have found it in one or two clicks.

So where is she getting these willful misinterpretations? A blog written by a meteorologist, which she helpfully sent me a link to. Did you know that fewer than one third of TV weathermen believe in human-caused climate change? I guess all that snow confuses them. I wanted to tell this girl to consider her sources; anyone can write a blog. (!) But her generation has grown up with reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube commenters. Any moron with an opinion can make himself heard loud and clear.

I sent her some more links to read; she probably didn't. I wish she had been the first juvenile climate-change skeptic I'd heard from, but she was far from it. Are all kids such cynics? When I was little I believed in EVERYTHING! (See, I can do it too.) At various times in my childhood I believed that Santa Claus existed, that a friendly poltergeist was following me, and that if I just tried a little harder I would finally tap into my powers of ESP and telekinesis. When I was very young, a bishop visited our parish and I misunderstood and thought he was God. To be fair, he had a really fancy hat.

I also believed that if my friend and I spent enough time picking up trash and making pinecone bird feeders, we would SAVE THE EARTH! We painted it on bookmarks and stationery. I convinced my parents to let me put a water-saving milk-jug contraption inside our toilet tank. I would rather have given up all my PBS privileges than littered.

So what happened? Was I the outlier? I know it's always been uncool to care. But the hostile dismissal of science ("Those 'scientists' are government funded idiots," says another teen reader) scares me. It's not going to be enough for me to care. It wouldn't even be enough for all the adults to care. The kids who are growing up into a world of rising oceans, vanishing species, and terrifying new diseases are going to have to care. The best I can do is to keep sending them my emails, even if it makes me hopelessly uncool. *is really thankful not to be in high school anymore*

A Tale of Two Whales

Here's something that caught my attention in the news yesterday. A lone gray whale was spotted wandering around in the Mediterranean--the first of its kind to be seen in the Atlantic Ocean in at least two centuries.

There used to be gray whales in the Atlantic as well as the Pacific, but when their population shrank in the 1700s, only the Pacific ones remained. Scientists think that the best explanation for this stray whale is that it navigated the Northwest Passage: that is, it swam from its Pacific home north into the Arctic Ocean and all the way across Canada, finally ending up in the Mediterranean. An expert speculates that the cetacean "is now wondering where the hell it is." (This is the same Northwest Passage that had decorated British explorers eating their boots back in the 19th century. These days, it's much easier to get through the ice, thanks to you-know-what.)

Gray whales are known for migrating enormous distances; they travel about 5,000 miles south at the start of every winter. Even so, this guy would have had to set some kind of distance record. The other, even less plausible possibility is that a population of gray whales has been in the Atlantic all along, remaining totally hidden. If you're interested, here's a BBC article where they note that gray whale is "also spelt grey."

The whale in the picture is, of course, not a gray or grey whale. It's a sky-blue, plush Dr. Seuss whale that I named Geisel (after Dr. Seuss's real name, Theodore Geisel). My grandparents, after reading an article I wrote for my magazine called "How to Mail a Whale," mailed it to me. For now, Geisel is living on top of my Webster's Unabridged. But I haven't ruled out the possibility that he's a migratory species.

Think of the Bees

Last Tuesday, in downtown Chicago, I spent one of the best hours I can remember spending in the city. Admittedly, your ideal outing might not involve thousands of bees, or standing on the edge of a 12-story building, or both. That's OK. I'm glad it was me up there and not you.

The building was City Hall, the day was sunny, and the reason I was there (along with my magazine's designer/photographer) was to see a beekeeper named Michael Thompson. We met him on the sidewalk outside; he was sitting cross-legged and reading a magazine, with a bee-keeping hat next to him so we'd find each other.

Michael runs the Chicago Honey Co-op, a bee farm/community garden/educational center on the west side. They're a real feel-good operation. They employ people recently released from prison and sell their honey at farmers' markets. Most of their space is a concrete lot, but they've got vegetables thriving in piles of compost directly on top of the concrete. They also run, at Mayor Daley's behest, a program called Chicago Rooftop Honey.

Mayor Daley has been the push behind Chicago's green rooftops, of which the city has over 400. They save energy by insulating buildings, and suck carbon dioxide and pollutants out of the air. Three of these roofs also house Daley's beehives. Rooftop Honey, which comes from these hives, is sold at the Farmstand at Randolph and Michigan to benefit the Cultural Affairs department.

I wish I had some pictures of the garden to show you, because it was really beautiful. But I was there as editor, not photographer, so I resisted the urge to snap away. The three of us stepped out onto City Hall roof (I should tell you right now that they really, really don't like letting people on the roof, and it turned out we weren't technically supposed to be up there either, so please don't call them and say I'm telling people they can go on the roof) and it was like we'd taken an elevator right out of the city. Michael led us on a tour around the garden's perimeter and talked about how he'd had his first beehive at age 12 or so--in his bedroom. I told him he must have had very tolerant parents. I was aware of a faint wobble of vertigo and realized that I was walking next to an ankle-height wall 120 feet up from LaSalle St.

...If you're saying "What wall?" then you've got the right idea.

The rooftop garden is full of prairie plants, which made me picture the city from above as a whole patchwork of grassland swatches, gradually covering Chicago with the same land that used to be here.

Finally, Michael led us to the two beehives. They're small now, but over the course of the summer he'll stack more compartments on top, which tells the bees to store extra honey (and makes the hives tall and dramatic).

Before cracking open the hives to check on the bee populations, Michael got out two netted bee hats "just in case we needed them." What did that mean? In case of a bee-blitz? He lit a fire inside a little metal contraption and puffed the smoke into the tops of the hives, to mellow out the bees. Then he pulled off the roofs, one hive at a time. Michael wore gloves, but the only other protective gear any of us wore was light-colored clothing: he said the bees wouldn't notice us unless we made a big dark shape, like a bear. Sure enough, when he pulled out a wooden frame coated in bees and beckoned us to look close, we passed untouched through a cloud of bees. On the frame, we saw the tiny white larvae curled inside their honeycomb cells. We saw covered cells that held pupae. Thick honey was plastered in the corners.

Thanks to good luck or a clever guess from Michael, the queen was there, a larger bee marked with a dot of green paint. The other bees crawled around and over her. "They're trying to cover her up," Michael told us. After peering at a frame from the second hive, he worried that the population was too low. They need a dense population, thousands of vibrating bee bodies, to keep the developing young at a warm temperature.

We came down from the roof elated. But it was only 11 in the morning, and we (and our light-colored outfits) had to return to the office. I was back to the indoor world for the day, and at 5:00 I headed underground to the red line.

Nothing gets my blood pressure up like engaging in a shoving match with grown men in order to sardine myself into a rush-hour red line train. But while I sweated and enjoyed a view of someone's elbow, I suddenly thought: Think of the bees. I don't always obey voices from my head, but in this case I thought of the bees. No matter where I was, they were still in their flower garden: carrying pollen on furred legs, not resting, covering and keeping each other warm with their small bodies. It was a nice thought.

The Blog-Wagon

OK. I realize that by this point I am so late to jump on the blog-wagon that it's even a cliche to acknowledge how late I am. I'm so far behind the curve that not only does my dad have a blog, but my grandparents were the first to tell me about it. ("Do you read your father's blog?") The first three domain names I tried had already been claimed by people who started, and abandoned, their pages in 2004.

In the age of Twitter, it feels almost quaint to expect people to pay attention to me for more than twelve or so words. But I've decided it might be fun to use this space to share things that I think are interesting. A lot of what I find interesting is science-y, so there will be some of that. Be forewarned.

"Inkfish," by the way, is another name for creatures such as octopuses and squid (to go along with "shellfish," "whitefish," and so on). You may know that octopuses and their ilk are scarily intelligent, but did you also know that an octopus can squeeze its body through any space that's bigger than its eyeball? And that "octopi" is an incorrect plural, since the word comes from Greek and not Latin? I also learned, while searching for a blog title unclaimed by someone's failed early-aughts ambition, that there's a Hawaiian creation myth saying ours is only the most recent in a string of failed universes. The only remnant of these previous, alien worlds is the octopus.

That's interesting, right?